Belarussian demonstrators won't give up

Young opponents of Lukashenko persist, say they're not afraid of regime's violence

March 23, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MINSK, Belarus --By midnight, as the temperature dropped ever lower and morning twilight was still five hours off, the core of Belarus' public opposition assumed its shape in the darkness.

It was about 300 people, arms interlocked and forming a small, dense square, stomping on the frozen ground under a police cadre's contemptuous gaze. Behind them, inside their human box, another group of demonstrators held their banned flags overhead, a thicket of banners over 20 small tents. At any moment, the demonstrators said, they expected the police to rush forward, beat them with clubs and drag them off to the detention cells. And then their protest would end in blood.

All of them said they were ready. "They may attack and beat us and inflict great trauma," said Stepan Svidersky, 18, a student. "But we have already achieved a result: We have shown our country that we are not afraid to stand against arbitrary rule."

Since the presidential election on March 19, which many said was rigged, the capital of Belarus has seen a protest like no other in 12 years of President Alexsander G. Lukashenko's autocratic grip. For four consecutive days, protesters have defied warnings of arrest and bloodshed and stood in a corner of October Square to demand a new race.

Their numbers rise to several thousand each evening, as they form a rally and impromptu dance party on the edge of an ice rink, and then dwindle until midnight, when this core stands through the night, in two lines, to hold the place for the next day.

Most of its members are young men in their 20s. A few look too young to shave. But since Tuesday night, when the opposition's leaders began to disagree about how best to unseat a president they do not recognize, this all-night core has become an independent force in a quixotic struggle.

Their influence emerged when one of Lukashenko's two principal challengers, Alexsander V. Kazulin, urged the protesters to disband Tuesday night and save themselves.

"There is no sense in keeping them on the square," Kazulin said. "We should think about our children, protect them, and not keep them in front of us."

The protesters refused to go. And they rejected the label of "children," applied to them by Lukashenko as well as by Kazulin, as they crowded together. They formed their two lines, one facing out of the camp, to warn of any advance by the police, the other facing inward, to keep an eye on the behavior of the demonstrators, ensuring that no provocateurs had slipped inside.

After midnight, they occupied a portion of Belarus, a country of 10 million people the size of Kansas, that was no larger than a 50-yard square.

"We consider this camp to be the only means to defend our position," Vitaly Korotysh, 22, one of the coordinators of the rally, said at 3:30 a.m. "If necessary it will stand for years. And if they break it up, I think on the next day the people will be back."

It is too soon to know whether this is foolishness or resolve.

But their position has been supported by Alexsander Milinkevich, the second-place finisher in the election, with 6 percent of the vote, far behind the incumbent's 82.6 percent, which the protesters see as a cynical fraud.

Milinkevich has said he will be with the demonstrators until the end, whatever shape events may take. It all could end with a dwindling of interest, he said, or in state violence. But inevitably, he said, the feelings here will grow.

"We live in a country of total fear, and very few people are brave enough to come out like this," he said, standing in front of the ranks at 4 a.m., as the temperature dropped to 10 degrees. "This action destroys fear inside the country because it tells people it is possible to fight for your own destiny."

The protesters see little chance of changes in government any time soon. To the extent that this is a revolution, Milinkevich often says, it is a revolution not on the streets but in the mind.

But their efforts have been squelched by the arrests of protesters leaving the square and by state television coverage that has portrayed them as homosexual, drunk and, in the words of one riot police commander, "pathetic."

Ultimately, Milinkevich said, a message exists here that cannot be missed by Lukashenko and his security apparatus, which retains the name KGB. "We are not cattle anymore," he said.

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